As cities across the globe are cautiously reopening their doors, empty streets are once again filling with cars and bikes. The restrictions put to limit the movement of people across the world has impacted peoples’ lives and their use of energy.
The curtailment of economic activity and mobility due to the pandemic induced lockdown, pushed down the global energy demand. According to the data released by the International Energy Agency (IEA), energy demand in the first three months of 2020 fell 3.8% compared to the same period last year. The fall in demand would be more in the next quarter as most countries locked their economies in March.
The crisis affected all kinds of transport – be it cars, buses, trains or flights. The use of public transport shrank on account of government lockdown and the fear of catching the virus. The lockdown imposed in the UK, for instance, resulted in a 95% fall in underground journeys in London.
Mobility, which generates 57% of the global oil demand, fell steeply. Road transport fell 50% to 75% in lockdown regions and aviation activity plunged to almost 90% in some countries. In India, public transport usage fell 45%, according to a google mobility report.
Curtailing Non-Essential Travel
Historically, it is seen that people make changes in their movement and transport behaviour after a crisis – either due to unavailability of transport or because of risk of traveling. This is true for non-essential travel and for people who have the facility to work from home.
During the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome(SARS) in 2003, demand for air travel, perceived as non-essential, continued to be below ‘business-as-usual’ levels six months after the epidemic eased. It took four months for passenger numbers to come to pre-crisis levels.
During the Avian Flu and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome the demand bounced back quickly. However, Covid-19 will have an effect similar to SARS owing to its higher risk of contagion as compared to the previous pandemics. People will take time before feeling confident enough to travel. A survey by International Air Transport Association (IATA) revealed that two out of five people will wait for six months before going back to air travel. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) suggests that there will be a severe drop in passengers in the next 12 months.
Other factors like perception of risk, cost, convenience, and the availability of alternative transport modes, will affect people’s mobility decisions.
Restarting Private Cars
The Covid pandemic could stimulate long-lasting effects on the mobility patterns. The use of cars could soar following the crisis.
In a study in the US by IBM, more than 20 percent of respondents who regularly used buses, subways or trains now said they no longer would, and another 28 percent said they will likely use public transportation less often.
Another report by Zekardo Automotive Solutions said that car owners will prefer their own vehicles over cabs or public transport. This could push transport related carbon emissions level up.
Autonomous cars growth could face a delay as investors scale back funding to concentrate on day-to-day expenses.
Energy Efficient Transport Behaviour
Governments are concerned about public health and well-being while restarting the economy. Pursuing sustainable transport behaviours could be one of the steps to stimulate economic activity, support employment and improve health outcomes. When the crisis ends, the relative cost of other transport will decide if people opt for public transport or more energy intensive mode.
The low price of oil will act as an incentive to choose private transport. In the wake of Covid crisis, the French government announced that bailouts for Air France would be contingent on the airline ceasing to provide domestic flights for trips that could be completed by train in under 2 hours and 30 minutes. The decision was taken to remove cheap but energy intensive options from peoples’ list. Stimulus spending by the government on less energy intensive transport modes will have positive economic spillover effects.
In the interest of a clean environment and energy, the priority should be to move from an auto-dependent mobility pattern to a non-motorised transport. Narrow and congested streets could be pedestrianised, such as Commercial Street and Avenue Road in Bengaluru.
Extraordinary Time Calls for Extraordinary Measures
Cities like Brussels have rapidly expanded the city’s bicycle network and called on citizens to choose bicycles for short journeys in order to avoid overwhelming the public transport.
Several other governments might relax regulations for private mobility, at least over the short term, because people feel less vulnerable to infection in individually owned vehicles. Some might view the crisis as an inflection point to accelerate the transition toward sustainable mobility, while others could loosen regulatory mandates to prop up their ailing automotive industries.
The future of mobility will be very different from two months ago. The pandemic has put a break on the future of shared mobility. The growing trend of sharing cabs and push towards public transport could see a reversal.
Long term behaviour will depend on policy decisions and how the pandemic unfolds in the coming few months. It also depends on how cities react to this. People need to feel safe even if they are cycling or walking. However, there seems to be a silver lining for the green mobility as home offices will ease congestion and bike lane pop ups could become a firm fixture.
It remains to be seen if the pandemic could be a catalyst for shift towards more sustainable transport behaviour. But, it looks certain that it would require government support to avoid going back to pre-crisis habits.
(Edited by Anu Choudary)
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